Mary Dispenza was a 7-year-old girl that day nearly 60 years agowhen she wandered away from her mother and into the darkened auditoriumof her Roman Catholic primary school. There, she saw a young prieststanding in the aisle.
She approached him and sat on his lap, she recalls, before he reached his hand under her panties and fondled her.
OnFriday, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles announced it plans to pay $60million to settle claims of sexual abuse from 45 people, includingDispenza. The payments cover cases from periods when the nation'slargest archdiocese had little or no sexual abuse insurance casesbefore the mid-1950s and after 1987.
The agreement shouldbe completed and signed off on by all parties by early next week, saidRay Boucher, the plaintiffs' lead attorney.
Dispenza, 66,repressed the memory of what happened in that auditorium for years. Shebecame a nun and worked for decades in Catholic schools as a teacherand principal.
But the memories eventually came back. Now,she says, the payment outlined by the church will help her heal, butshe doesn't know if she can ever reconcile the abuse with her faith.
"Everythingthat I knew, all my identity, was wrapped up in the church in one wayor another. I was just lost," said Dispenza, who lives in Bellevue,Wash. "I felt we both lost: the church lost me and I lost the church.And we both had invested a lot in each other for all those years."
Afterhe abused her, Dispenza says, the now-defrocked Rev. George NevilleRucker held her hand as he walked her to the back of the auditorium.She washed her hands before returning to her mother, and didn't tellanyone what had happened for more than 40 years.
"I wentinto this little bathroom and I remember washing my hands, washing andwashing. As a 7-year-old, I think I thought that would clean me orsomething," she said in a telephone interview. "That's where I leftlittle Mary for many, many years. I just detached and split."
Rucker,who was removed from the priesthood in 2002, pleaded not guilty thefollowing year to 29 counts of molestation for alleged acts between1947 and 1977 with 12 girls. The charges were later dropped after aU.S. Supreme Court ruling overturned a California law that erased thestatute of limitations for filing criminal molestation cases.
Rucker's attorney, Donald Steier, said Friday he would not discuss Dispenza's account of the alleged abuse.
"We're happy that she's been able to settle this claim and put it behind her," Steier said.
Dispenzaworked for six years at St. Alphonsus School in East Los Angeles, thesame school where she says Rucker abused her beginning in 1947.
In1973, she left her religious order after she had doubts about whetherit was her true calling. She went on to become a teacher and principalat a Catholic school in Seattle and became director of the Archdioceseof Seattle's pastoral life services department.
In 1989,she and other archdiocese employees were required to take a workshop onclergy abuse. It was there, Dispenza says, that she began to rememberwhat happened in the auditorium.
"It was like, 'Oh my God, this happened to me and I need to take care of it,'" she said.
She told her father about the alleged abuse when he was on his deathbed, but her mother never knew.
"Iloved my church, I loved my work and I think I knew that somehow facingor telling the truth would cause me to have to lose something I love,"she said.
Now, Dispenza says she no longer calls herself aCatholic and no longer attends church. She hopes, however, that theproposed settlement will help her heal.
"I don't know thatI can ever reconcile with the church," she said. "That isn't even mygoal. I just want to be at peace with myself and I am."
Published: Saturday, December 2, 2006 09:30 PST
for a listing of alternate locations.